Those of you who didn't sleep your way through World History will have some familiarity with the Russian imperial dynasty, the Romanovs. Most likely, the ones you remember most are Tsar Nicholas II, Alexandra, and their children. Their tragic murders during the 1918 Revolution were the basis for nearly a century's worth of wild speculation, and it's only in the latter part of the 20th century that the myths and mysteries were laid to rest. But the story of the Romanovs is much broader in scope than just one Tsar and Tsarina --- the family tree was decades old before a young Nicholas II assumed the duties of Russia's ruling monarchy. The numerous branches extended from its most famous 17th century ancestor, Peter the Great, through several generations, to those few descendants still living today. While many still remain mere names on a genealogical chart, the painstaking research of these two authors with the acknowledged assistance of dedicated people across three continents brings to life a portion of their history that spans from the 1860s to the 1990s.
Following a chronological format, this collective biography begins near the end of Alexander II's reign, at a time when politics had become a divisive and volatile issue even among the Romanovs. Breaking rank with his ancestral predecessors, Alexander II had taken steps to move Russia toward a constitutional monarchy that embraced freedom of the press and trial by jury. While this enlightened form of rule became largely a footnote in Russian history, its legacy is represented by the likes of Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and Tchaikovsky. Upon his death at the hands of terrorists, his son, Alexander III, ascended to the throne and took steps to return Russia to a traditional monarchy, which brought about even greater poverty and unrest among the masses. Alexander III heartily embraced the extravagant lifestyle that all Romanovs had always enjoyed --- a lifestyle that left the ruling class completely out of touch with the plight of ordinary Russians.
As Alexander III's life drew to a close and his son Nicholas II stepped into the pages of history, the seeds of destruction for this ancient empire, and particularly the Romanov dynasty, had been sown. While many credit their downfall to a self-proclaimed holyman, the infamous Rasputin who wormed his way into the royal palace of Nicholas II, Perry and Pleshakov make it clear that he was only the final catalyst that sparked the fires of revolution.
The latter part of the book revolves around the years following the shocking deaths of Nicholas II, Alexandra, and their five children. Having introduced most of the Grand Dukes and Duchesses at this point, the authors relate the subsequent events that encompassed not only the family's dramatic flight from their homeland, but shed light on the key figures in the Bolshevik movement, the terrorism and turmoil under the leaderships of Lenin and Stalin, and the worldwide reaction to the exiled Romanovs. For many, their blood ties to other houses of Europe didn't necessarily guarantee a warm welcome or sanctity. In fact, those Dukes and Duchesses who made it out alive would spend the rest of their years on foreign soils, attempting to restore some form of monarchy to Russia while constantly living in fear of assassins.
While the overall substance of THE FLIGHT OF THE ROMANOVS is historical, the authors have not overlooked the human element in this saga. Ambitions, jealousies, and betrayals were plentiful. There are stories of love that touch the heart, and stories of squandered lives that are pathetically sad. Perry and Pleshakov characterize the Romanov women as the driving force behind the dynasty, and this colorful group of mothers, mistresses, and wives ultimately endured exile far better than the Romanov men. Anecdotes and photographs reveal the charms and flaws, achievements and scandals, happiness and heartbreak --- portraits of very ordinary people, born into their political circumstances, and caught up in a fury of revolution they didn't fully understand. Today, even the Russians, themselves, remain divided in their feelings about the House of Romanov.
Although this intensely detailed tome might appear daunting, the presentation is not only informative but intriguing as well. Even those with little knowledge of world history will find it clearly narrated, including a genealogical tree to help sort out the family units and repetitious names. Given the erratic political and economic conditions that still exist in Russia today, understanding its rich and tumultuous history is one step closer to understanding the present. And with the rumors of a movement to restore a monarchy to Russia, albeit a constitutional one, an event of that magnitude could impact all of our lives. You might also be surprised to learn some of the names of those with a legitimate claim to succeed as head of the House of Romanov. Does Prince Charles ring a bell?
Precious resources --- from the Archives of the Russian Federation, to the Royal Library in Copenhagen, to the historical records of Windsor Castle in England --- have provided Perry and Pleshakov a wealth of documentation. Most notably, the availability of personal diaries and the ability to interview various living members of this royal dynasty added to the depth of material depicting the family, the political and social climate of Russia, and the events that took place. Readers may be somewhat skeptical about the objectivity of these oral histories after learning of the various rival factions that existed within the family itself, but combined with the totality of their research, THE FLIGHT OF THE ROMANOVS is one of the most impressive historical narratives you will ever have the pleasure to read.
Reviewed by Ann Bruns (BkPageWC@aol.com) on February 5, 2001